Director: Dante Lam (as Lin Chaoxian)
Screenplay: Ji Feng
Starring: Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Qing, Jiang Du, Luxia Jiang, Fang Yin, Henry Prince Mak, Lu Chen (as Guo Yubin)
Country: China, Morocco, Hong Kong
Duration: 142 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Operation Mekong (a.k.a. Elite Force: Operation Mekong) found great success in its home country of China and did relatively well elsewhere too. So director Dante Lam was tasked to follow it up with Operation Red Sea (a.k.a. Hong hai xing dong). It’s not actually a sequel, but takes a very similar approach in turning the true story of a Chinese military mission into a rip-roaring action movie. Mekong was big, brash and overblown, but a lot of fun, so it didn’t take much to convince the action junkie in me to give Red Sea a shot.
Operation Red Sea is based (very loosely I imagine) on the evacuation of 225 foreign nationals and almost 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden during the Yemeni Civil War in 2015 (thank you to Wikipedia for clearing the details up). It sees a Chinese Navy fleet sent to the area to take the civilians out of the war zone (soon after rescuing a cargo ship from the hands of Somalian pirates). With some trapped deep behind enemy lines and a group (including a Chinese woman) taken hostage by the terrorist organisation Zaka, the Navy sends out their elite 8-person Jiaolong Assault Team to swiftly get in and out with the civilians. The mission gets pushed to another level however when the journalist Xia Nan (Hai-Qing) tells the team that one of the hostages is the shifty owner of an energy company who has obtained a large amount of yellowcake and the secret formula to turn this into a dirty bomb. So the assault team have to race against the clock to prevent Zaka from getting their hands on this dangerous material, whilst also saving the remaining hostages.
People often accuse Hollywood of blatant flag-waving, but the Chinese take this to another level in some of their blockbusters. This is a prime example, particularly as it was made to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, as well as the party’s 19th National Congress. The whole film is an obvious advert for the Chinese Navy, showing off how well equipped it is and how expertly trained, heroic and selfless their personnel are. Focussing on a team effort rather than the one-man army approach of most American action movies, Operation Red Sea also pays tribute to the Communist spirit of China. So, there’s a thick layer of propaganda you have to wade through in approaching the film. However, being an Asian action movie aficionado and having seen Operation Mekong and other similar titles, I was fully expecting this and didn’t let it trouble me.
It did take me a short while to get into the film though. As it warms up in the first third, it’s hard to look past the film’s various faults. It takes a hugely over-the-top approach, which works for some elements that I’ll get into later, but leads to some hammy performances, cliched dialogue and characters, and overly black and white drawing of heroes and villains. It also took me a while to zone in on who was who within the assault team, as the furious pace of the action and matching military gear made it difficult visually, whilst little time was spent developing the characters too.
However, once I got into the groove of the film and some brief downtime gave the characters a little more breathing room, I really warmed to it. As an action movie, Operation Red Sea is pretty damn good. Action-packed doesn’t even begin to describe how crammed to the gills the film is with explosive set-pieces. I’d be hard-pressed to find any film with such a dense volume of action and furious pace extended over such a lengthy running time (nearly two and a half hours). The closest equivalent might be Black Hawk Down, and like that it’s an intense and exhausting experience.
The action is well developed through the film too. I think it took me a little while to get into it because the first few skirmishes are fairly exciting but pretty bog-standard. However, Lam makes sure each subsequent set-piece outdoes the previous one, leading to a final act that pulls out all the stops to deliver a smorgasbord of explosions, one-on-one showdowns and lashings of gore.
Indeed, the film is bloodier than I expected. Our core team really get put through the ringer and, without wanting to spoil anything, they don’t all survive. There’s plenty of graphic injury detail with bodies blown to bits, limbs lopped off and faces half-disintegrated. I was annoyed by some fake-looking CGI ‘squibs’ in early scenes, but by the end I was impressed by the special-effects makeup used for the on-screen carnage.
Style-wise it’s flashily shot, but with an overly clean digital look that doesn’t do much for me. It’s glossy, and as a spectacle it looks pretty good, but it’s rather artless for the most part. A climactic tank showdown makes great use of a sandstorm though. Some neat on-gun camera shots are a nice touch too, as are some well-utilised birds-eye view angles. It’s fast-moving visually speaking, so some of the wilder firefights get a little hard to follow, but largely Lam gets away with his fast-cutting, moving camera techniques.
Yes, you could easily call Operation Red Sea flag-waving, over-the-top nonsense, but as a kick-ass, non-stop barrage of excitement, it’s first class. After a cheesy, mediocre first-third, it really kicks into high gear and keeps on accelerating to deliver what might be one of the most exciting action movies of the year.
Operation Red Sea is out on 29th October on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download in the UK, released by Cine Asia. I saw an online screener, so can’t comment on the disc transfers or special features.